Hats off to Quebec on St. Jean Baptiste Day

Beaverbrook Art GalleryJune 24, 20190 Comments


We're celebrating St.Jean Baptiste Day with some historical trivia from our collection of Cornelius Krieghoff paintings!


Featured in this photo is Celine Gorham, Curatorial Registrar for the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and resident sewing expert, who made her own hat to match those depicted in Krieghoff’s paintings. Little did she know when she began the project that this particular style of hat is a little piece of French-Canadian history. Read on for Celine’s account of the knitting process and the fascinating story behind the colour-coded hats.

“I set out to make a night cap like the one worn in the Krieghoff painting of a gentleman reading a newspaper [pictured above], and unearthed so much more! What I initially assumed was a straightforward sewing project became a deep dive into early French settler clothing and a two week long knitting project."

The distinctive floppy hat worn by many of the men in the Krieghoff paintings is actually a knitted-then-felted hat, similar to ones worn by Scandinavian whalers at the time, but unique in shape and colouring. A large hollow football shape was knitted, felted down with soap and hot water, and then one end inverted into the other to create a warm, durable, and waterproof double-layer hat, perfect for seafaring French settlers. It’s also quite stylish!

The colour of these hats is also quite distinct – take a look at other paintings done by Krieghoff and you’ll see different colours of these same hats, indicating where the French settled, based on the colour. Red meant Quebec City, blue was Montreal, and white was Trois-Rivières. The majority of hats were likely the natural colour of the sheep, as that would have been cheaper and/or less time consuming than buying or dyeing coloured wool. The dyes used would have been plant-based dyes: madder and indigo/woad supplied the red and blue colours respectively.

“The particular hat pattern I worked with was put together by Sally Pointer, a researcher and knitter who based the pattern on an actual hat pulled from the wreck of the Marchault, a French resupply ship that sunk in the Restigouche during a skirmish with the English. I took a few liberties while knitting (my example isn’t felted, so I changed the yarn and needle size, and played around with the shaping a bit), but it’s quite simple to make although it does take a while. Sometimes this style of hat is called “Voyageur cap” or “Machault cap”, and it’s the precursor to the ubiquitous tuque!”

In painting the “common” folk of early Canada, Krieghoff inadvertently captured a tremendous amount of information on the dress of those people. Often times with grand portraits we see the finery of the moment, not necessarily what your average person wore on a day to day basis. In his paintings we see the shoes, the coats, the pants, the ceinture-fléchées, the various hats worn by Indigenous, Scottish, and French people. We get a small window into those lives when we reproduce these garments from extant examples.

Leave a Comment